Sanity’s Other Side: Building a Better Tutorial

Would you like a tutorial on how to navigate this website?


Ah, tutorial stages, that silly little thing you do in the beginning just so you can get to the part where you’re cleaving people’s faces off. What is up with tutorials and why do we hate them? Well, let’s find out.

Okay, tutorials are in many ways, a necessary evil. In a day and age where the instruction manual is nonexistent, there should be some way of telling first time players how to play your game. The only problem is slogging through that first ten minutes of “gameplay.” So how would we go about making a tutorial? I think we need to establish and objective first for a “good” tutorial.

Objective: A good tutorial should convey how to play a game without breaking from the engagement of the player.

Holy crap! It’s just like teaching! Put on your teachers’ caps devs because you don’t want your students sleeping in class! Let’s get some ideas on the board.

1. Make it optional

Knights in the Nightmare sc

For plenty of people, reading the instruction manual does help, and by that I mean they just look at the page which tells you which button is the “Attack” button and which is the “Jump” button. But what if your game is very complex? Knights in the Nightmare, a fantastic game, has an hour-long tutorial, but fortunately, it’s tucked away at the title screen so you can slog through it at your own pace, ignore it entirely, or cherry pick the parts you do know. We’ve streamlined a lot by not having a captive audience but you’ll have to make the tutorial itself fun, so how do we go about that?

2. Use schema

stick shift

Remember how many people can just pick up a controller, ask which buttons are attack, jump, shoot, etc. and start playing? That’s because we human beings, unlike your garden variety primates, have developed the ability to create much deeper psychological schema. Schema are your mind’s “autopilot.” Every time you enter a new car, you don’t have to re-learn how to drive. Your schema kick in.

Much the same, if your character is picking up all sorts of guns, there’s no need to teach them to reload, just show what the controls are and let them fly.

If there’s a second meter next to the HP gauge, it’s likely the MP gauge.

If your character has no attacks, then let’s try jumping on enemies.

And all you had to do was show that screen of which button did what. Even the most basic of gamers will learn how to play Mario in mere seconds. I can also hardly think of a shooter that doesn’t use a trigger or a mouse button to fire. Why teach what your audience already knows?

3. Full integration

little big planet sc

We’ve already streamlined our tutorial and cut back on its content by assuming our players are humans and learn much more quickly than other organisms. So now we have to squeeze in the parts we know our players don’t really get intuitively. Let’s say our player is playing the game and develops a new ability or gains a new skill. Here, a companion sidelines the player to teach the new skill and then sends the player on his or her way. By weaving bits of story into the tutorial, the players aren’t completely filled with boredom.

One such example I remember is in Tales of the Abyss (check out our review here). In a tutorial on how to use a special mechanic that powers up your attacks with elements, Luke is taken aside by another character, and since Luke is an idiot, the other character quizzes Luke about the game world. The player then uses the new mechanic. The optional tutorial is a bit humorous, fleshes out the game world, and gets what it needs to do done. On a more subtle level, the first stage of Little Big Planet has all the controls and commands as well as the opening credits pop up stylishly in the background. No sidelining at all, just get to the goal.

4. Less studying, more hands on

Megaman x intro stage

Sometimes you don’t even need a closed environment for a player to test out a new skill when the best way is to throw the player right into the action. This is honestly one of the best tutorials. I’m sure you all have seen internet sensation Egoraptor gush over the opening stage of Mega Man X. Even if you never played a video game in your life, you’d understand exactly how to play Megaman X from the extremely well-crafted opening stage. The key here is that the stage worked on our human schema and then we filled in all the other blanks by ourselves such as learning to charge shots or use the wall jump from the stage design.

zelda skyward sword sc

In Zelda, you get dungeons dedicated to honing your skills to using new weapons and just simple controls explanations. The discovery of how far you can go with them, however, is up to you. Pokemon Black and White did not need to give neon signs about type advantages or throw you into a fight all about them. The NPCs merely mentioned it and then gave you a Pokemon that would be super-effective against the first gym leaders. Then you could use that Pokemon for yourself against a gym leader that already had a super-effective Pokemon against you. Simple and effective, the player gets to see for her or himself how the type chart works. Instead of a type chart lecture, the most elegant way to teach the game is to play it.

cilan cress and chili

At the end of the day, a well-made tutorial should teach by giving players a chance to start at wherever they’re most confident, engaging them with story details, and by spending less time explaining and more time doing. Join me next time when I teach people how to breathe.

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The Inverseman is an evil overlord from an alternate dimension representing humanity's anti-existence who wound up becoming a modest civil servant.


The Inverseman is an evil overlord from an alternate dimension representing humanity's anti-existence who wound up becoming a modest civil servant.


  1. Pingback: Disney Infinity Review | Moar Powah!

  2. This was something internet gamers complained about? Huh. It's like one complaint pops up every 10 minutes. But I digress. Tutorial stages exist to do what they're supposed to do, teach the very basics to saps who are too lazy to pick up an instruction manual, and they even stopped putting effort into manuals. Maybe it is a better idea to drop players into the action and let them figure things out for themselves.

    Also, I never got the "let's hate the tutorial mascots" meme.

    • Gamers always find something to complain about. Very entitled bunch. As always Mr. G, your input/comments/opinions are greatly appreciated. Now back to watching Symphogear for me.

      • I'll be talking about Symphogear G 6-8 tomorrow. I have a strong feeling after episode 5's conclusion, business picked up big time.

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